The District of Columbia police department's homicide unit has concluded that George Austin Spells, the 71-year-old resident of the city-run D.C. Village nursing home who died last week of scalding burns, put himself in the bathtub where he received the burns.
Detective John Clark of the homicide unit, who investigated the death, said he had concluded that Spells had placed himself in the bathtub and had turned the bath water on and off.
"He got around quite well in his wheelchair," Clark said. "He could get into the tub by himself. Spells was one of those individuals with an obsession for cleanliness. He would go behind the nurses and try to take baths on his own."
Katheryn Spells Jackson, his sister, has said her brother told her shortly before he died that a nurse had put him in the tub.
Jackson's attorney, Dean E. Swartz, said yesterday that the homicide unit's findings, whether correct or not, do not absolve the District of responsibility in the death.
"It really doesn't matter if he did somersaults and put himself in there," Swartz said. "The District allowed a dangerous situation to exist."
The wheelchair-bound, mentally incapacitated Spells was taken to Washington Hospital Center with second- and third-degree burns on 12 percent of his body on March 19. On April 1 Spells died as a result of his injuries.
The official cause of death was thermal injuries followed by pneumonia and septicemia (blood poisoning), and the D.C. Medical Examiner's Office ruled it an accidental death.
Spells had suffered three strokes and did not speak very much, Clark said. "He was very senile, but he was wise enough, when the nurses turned their backs, to get into the bathing room. They caught him twice before."
D.C. Village has been cited in the past for having hot water temperatures in excess of the 110-degree limit specified by District and federal regulations. At 110 degrees, a person cannot be scalded, according to health experts.
Swartz, Jackson's attorney, has written to Mayor Marion Barry stating that "negligence of the District of Columbia . . . caused Spells' death" and asking that city officials make no modifications or repairs on the tub where Spells was burned until experts could inspect the tub and its plumbing.
Detective Clark said yesterday that the door to the bathroom now has been locked. A D.C. Department of Human Services spokesman said that the faulty valve that was the cause of the problem has been repaired.
He said that at the time of the scalding, signs were posted in the bathroom warning residents of the hot water.
Jackson and Swartz said yesterday that if the nurses knew he was likely to try to bathe himself in a tub where there was dangerously hot water, they should have supervised him better or locked the bathroom door.
Swartz said there is no basis on which to determine that Spells put himself in the tub.
"I don't expect any of the nurses to come forward and say, 'We put this man in boiling hot water and killed him,' " Swartz said.